Rare Fermented Camel’s Milk

Explore one of the world’s rarest ferments, camel’s milk, with an artisan cheesemaker, and get the history of this often-overlooked liquid.

| Fall 2019

Photo from Getty Images/benedek

When I was about 15 years old, I thought owning a camel would be the coolest thing ever. Oh, the sensation we would cause, riding in the local parades! I had a Jersey dairy cow at the time, but even in my wildest dreams, milking a camel didn’t cross my mind. Now, decades later, after learning more about these large, odd beasts and the possibilities of their milk, I almost want to own one again.

Trekking Through the Sands of Time

Camels have served mankind for the past 4,000 years, providing meat, milk, hides, and reliable transportation. All members of the Camelidae trace their ancestors to the North American continent. From there, they migrated to South America, where they exist today (sometimes called “New World camels”) as llamas, vicunas, guanaco, and alpacas. They also migrated north, across the Bering land bridge, to Asia, and eventually clear to the tip of Africa. About 11,000 years ago, they became extinct in North America. In Eurasia, however, their descendants adapted, thrived, and became the camels we know today. In Asia, two species emerged: Camelus bactrianus, the short-legged, two-humped Bactrian, or Asian camel; and Camelus ferus, the critically endangered wild Bactrian. In northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the taller, leggier, one-humped dromedary, or Arabian camel, Camelus dromedarius, evolved. Although feral populations of camels exist in some parts of the world, the only truly wild camel is the Bactrian.

Both the Bactrian, who favors cooler climates, and the dromedary, who thrives in desert and semiarid conditions, are remarkably thrifty creatures. In fact, everything about their physiology is designed to optimize the consumption and conservation of water and feed. The camel is a long-haul, low-maintenance, survival machine that can thrive in even the worst conditions. Camels are well equipped for these tough situations, with a hump that stores high-energy fat; an internal thermostat that can regulate the animal’s temperature throughout the day; kidneys and a colon that modulate water loss; red blood cells that don’t rupture when mass quantities of water are consumed in a short time; thick lips and gums that allow thorny, otherwise inedible plants to be consumed; and more. The camel’s ability to survive in dire conditions makes it an intriguing livestock option for the parts of the world already feeling the long-term effects of climate change.

Photo from Getty Images/Yumi mini

Treasure from a Foreign Land

Precise, reliable information on the nutrient content of camel’s milk is completely dependent on the camel species and, even more importantly, how the animal is cared for. In a fascinating paradox, the more feed and water a camel consumes, the less moisture its milk contains! For example, a camel with a nursing calf on a long trek across the desert will have higher water content in its milk than it would if it were back at the village eating and drinking regularly. It’s believed (and it certainly makes sense) that this is simply to ensure that calves stay well hydrated under severe conditions. Humans trekking alongside or on top of camels on long, thirsty trips have reaped the benefits of this paradox for centuries. When the water content increases in the milk, other components, such as protein, fat, lactose, and minerals, decrease. Thus, camel’s milk collected during these conditions has very low lactose content — about half that of cow’s milk — in addition to the other components. But, under good feeding conditions, these components increase to normal levels, and are comparable to cow’s milk.



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